“Pile ‘em high. Seldom cheap.
What do Charlton Athletic, Dundee, Stockport County and FC Halifax Town all have in common? Football’s forensic scientists might find more obscure and, perhaps more interesting links between them, but for the purposes of this discussion they’re linked by the fact that, in the opening months of the 2012/13 season, they all discounted their ticket prices to entice fans into their grounds. Whether it was ‘kids for a quid’ or ‘football for a fiver’, all of them have reached out to their communities and sought to make the cost of going to a match more bearable.
Creative pricing, usually coupled with a concerted marketing push, is a growing trend up and down the leagues. West Ham United pumped out limited numbers of walk-up tickets to under-16s for the opening game of the Premier League season for a measly £1. It’s a price that’s hard to beat, and an admirable gesture from the club on the face of it. But, where do all those young football fans go for the next game, when the price of their seat is back up to £21, apart from going back to experiencing the game via Sky Sports?
Discounting football tickets makes one big assumption: that people likely to attend football matches are motivated by price. Maybe there’s an element of truth in that in the modern age, but no sooner are those words printed on the page than the next question comes: who are ‘the people likely to attend football matches’ these days? Looking from the clubs’ perspective, there are plenty of clues to lead us to just who they are most keen to entice. West Ham drove down prices for their home game against Wigan Athletic in a day of ‘family friendly football’ and Stockport County delivered 20,000 leaflets to schools. The aim, it seems, isn’t to entice what might be perceived as the ‘traditional football supporter’ to make the most of a fairer priced match ticket.
County’s energetic vice-Chairman, Spencer Fearn, was happy to tell STAND what the club’s aims were in offering £5 tickets for two games last season, and the Ebbsfleet game this September. He said: “(We want) to engage more fans and give those for whom football is not affordable the opportunity to attend a live game. A family of four can attend for £14 and there are not many activities a family can do for that price. By offering this incentive we can give more people the opportunity to watch live football.”
It’s difficult to argue with Fearn’s rationale and, with gates peaking for their final game of the 2011/12 season at 6,393, up from 3,199 for the game prior, there are a few thousand people who are willing to take him up on his offer. The figures show that a few thousand more people did experience live football, instead of watching the results come in on television. Whether families found their £14 ‘day out’, including a one-nil defeat, good value is for them to decide. However, if club’s like County are to use ticket pricing as a way to ensure sustainability, doubts about this particular method start to creep in. The first gate of this season dipped again to 3,448, with a similar pattern of disinterest after the initial boom of a discounted game happening for other clubs.
It’s perhaps coincidence that the chairman of County’s most-recently discounted match opponents, Jessica McQueen, was called upon to address criticisms from her own support over ticket pricing in her programme notes prior to their Edgeley Park visit. The Ebbsfleet chief wrote: “If we reduce admission prices, will it really bring in lots more supporters? Those who have supported the club through the lean and not so lean times, will I am sure tell you, loads of incentives have been tried. We have had vouchers; we have had Kids for a Quid. None really worked.”
It isn’t to criticise clubs doing what they can to boost attendances, but ticket ‘fire sales’, gimmicks and Groupon vouchers might not be the way to secure the game’s longevity outside, and maybe within, the Premier League. You don’t have to look too far for proof. At FC Halifax Town a recent promotion brought only 100 extra people through the turnstiles and Dundee United’s ‘Bring a friend for a fiver’ for their Hearts match in April (down from the lowest adult price of £22) saw an increase on the gate of around 350, not taking into account Hearts’ away support. It’s something, but is it enough? Can clubs not find, or be helped to find ways of ensuring more consistent take up amongst communities priced out of the ‘top flight’ game?
Tim Baker, of Baker Richards, is an expert in the science of ticketing, working with the entertainment industry to fill seats. Although he agrees that the peaks in attendance that Stockport County experienced shows that something is working, he feels that the plan has fundamental holes in it. He told STAND: “The lower you make the offer price, the higher you’re likely to find initial uptake, but there is usually less retention that way because the gap between the promotional price and the normal price is too large. Its basic psychology – if you make the same ticket £5 one week, and £16 the next, people are unlikely to buy again. It’s only good if people keep coming.”
According to Baker, more effective offers might be to offer less extreme discounts or commit fans to a reduced price package, and season tickets make more sense to him than ever. Step forward Dundee, offering under-12’s tickets for six games for a fiver this season – that’s 83p per game as an incentive to keep going. Also see FC United offering their ‘pay what you can afford’ season tickets and many clubs doing ‘early bird’ reductions for renewing season tickets before the season gets underway. Looking back to clubs like County and Charlton Athletic, pricing a couple of games at a fiver for adults and a quid for children, twice a season, are likely to cost them money by also discounting regulars who would otherwise pay top price. But how many might attend more regularly and long into the future, if a ticket was always a reasonable £10?
The Football Supporters Federation’s (FSF) Michael Brunskill is one of many who recognise the issues faced by clubs fighting against a dwindling fan base. He told STAND: “We wouldn’t say discounts are a bad thing, but is it a short-term patch up? We sympathise with smaller clubs as they rely totally on gate receipts because there’s no fair distribution of TV rights from the top. A club like Gateshead has little chance of attracting Newcastle United fans who might be disillusioned with going to St James Park, because they still have to charge £14. For that, fans might as well stick with the Premier League.”
The FSF is one hundred per cent behind a redistribution of TV money, and make no qualms about sounding the death knell on the professional English game’s 5 tier depth if reform doesn’t happen. Stockport County confirm that is it purely running costs that stop them reducing prices more frequently, and help from other sources is in short supply. It’s vital that people play a more regular role in supporting their local teams and if paying £5 once or twice a season helps, then so be it.
But, if it all turns out to be a pointless exercise, perhaps clubs should consider the longer term gains to be had from giving more traditional football supporters the opportunity to watch more football locally, as well as children and families. Putting loyalty, as well as price, back into the equation could help; after all, it’s a currency that supporters have been trading in for more than a century.”